A Modern Christmas Carol by Bob Seidensticker
122 pages; CreateSpace Independent Publishing; $5.99 [paperback]
97 pages; Amazon Digital Services; $1.99 [Kindle eBook]
I love the dickens out of a good A Christmas Carol send-up … and I hate a bad one. Given that there are more bad Christmas Carol adaptations out there than good ones, I approached Bob Seidensticker’s entry into the Dickens Riff genre, A Modern Christmas Carol, with a little trepidation.
This tale’s Scrooge is a televangelist, Reverend Nathan Thorpe, who is lord and master not of the counting house but of Hundredfold Ministries, one of the biggest mega-churches in the country. He begins the tale as a jaded businessman who milks his flock for donations and spends as little as possible on actual humanitarian efforts. On Chrsitmas Eve, of course, he gets a visit from his former partner in the ministry, followed by the arrival of three Christmas spirits who aim to show him the error of his ways.
Part of the problem with most Christmas Carol adaptations is that they don’t really “get” the original. When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, he wasn’t trying to write the single most recognized piece of holiday literature since the Nativity story. He was penning a commentary on capitalism and the state of the poor in Victorian London. Scrooge’s conversion from Christmas-hater to Christmas-lover is a metaphor; he doesn’t just embrace Christmas itself, but the entire philosophy of caring for the less fortunate, enjoying life, and not being a crass capitalist.
Seidensticker, I am happy to report, “gets” that A Christmas Carol is more than just an ode to Christmas, and so he has appropriately used the classic tale to pen a critique of modern religion — or more specifically, the modern media-fueled mega-church expression of American Christian religion. Within the pages of A Modern Christmas Carol, Seidensticker confronts Thorpe with most of the big, sticky questions about God and faith that the nontheist quiver holds. The problem of evil, the problem of unanswered prayers, the things the Bible says (and doesn’t say) about things like women’s rights and slavery — these are all the things that the three Spirits force Thorpe to reckon with.
For the most part, Seidensticker loads up these rhetorical points with narrative skill. That’s not to say that they’re subtle; in fact a lot of the book is very unsubtle, the problems with and questions about faith stated as plainly as they would be in an atheist’s debate primer. Dickens was much better at slipping commentary into narrative prose; but Seidensticker is still able to map a critique of the modern mega-church to Dickens’ original critique of industrial capitalism with surprising ease. The result is perhaps a little bit preaching to the choir, but it’s engaging nonetheless.
The lack of subtlety and nuance does occasionally work against the book. Sometimes things seem to happen not because they make complete sense for the characters or for the story, but because the structure of the original demands them. Other times, scenarios Seidensticker wants to critique get forced into a narrative that doesn’t quite suit them. In the latter category, especially, is a subplot involving an abusive husband and Thorpe’s administrative asistant. It’s an overdramatic element that feels shoehorned into the space originally filled by noble-but-downtrodden Bob Cratchit and his wife.
Ultimately, A Modern Christmas Carol isn’t going to appeal to the highly religious, and little of what’s argued in the story will be new to a skeptical or nontheist audience. But if you’re inclined to agree that modern mega-religion is a problem in need of solving, and if you’re interested in seeing the classic Dickens tale rewritten for a purpose other than providing some Hollywood leading man with a role, then you should check the novel out. It’s worth a read.